Just Hours Until Democratic Gains

by Stuart Rothenberg November 4, 2006 · 11:10 PM EST

With less than a week to go before Election Day, we now know the GOP’s October surprise: Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). And you wondered why White House political guru Karl Rove sounded so upbeat and certain that Republicans would hold both chambers of Congress?

Kerry, who already destroyed one election for his party, apparently is trying to make it two in a row. It will be a tough job for the Massachusetts Democrat, but he’s doing his best, first by saying something silly and inappropriate, then compounding it by going on the attack instead of apologizing immediately.

Alas, the die is cast, and at this point, even Kerry can’t cost his party control of the House. But the louder he complains about the president, and the more names he calls White House aides, the more he could energize Republicans, which would help the GOP hold another seat or two.

In most respects, the national political environment has changed little since the beginning of the year. Yes, there have been bumps along the way — President Bush’s job approval has gone down, then up, then down again — but the fundamental elements of the election cycle remain unchanged.

The news from Iraq has not improved — in fact, it has gotten worse — and Americans have become increasingly pessimistic about the president’s policies. A majority of Americans believe the United States made a mistake in invading Iraq, and only about one in three Americans believe that we are winning the war against terror. That shouldn’t be surprising, given that Bush often has repeated that Iraq is the front line in the war against terror.

Congress’ already bad reputation was made worse by the page scandal surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and by the way GOP leaders handled it. All of that has played into the Democrats’ message of “change,” making the 2006 elections a classic referendum on the party in power and the president.

Democrats didn’t “nationalize” these midterms — events and circumstances did. When the news is bad, voters naturally look for someone to blame. And when one party controls all of the levers of government, that party gets 100 percent of the blame.

Still, even if the Democrats didn’t create that wave, they have done a good job riding it.
GOP prospects in the midterm elections have been further damaged by inept Republican behavior, from the disastrous campaign of self-inflicted wounds by Sen. George Allen (Va.) to a messy Republican Tennessee Senate primary that enhanced the chances of Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr. in what had seemed like an almost impossible race.

And over in the House, the behavior (or alleged behavior) of a number of current and former Republican Members— former Reps. Tom DeLay (Texas) and Foley and Reps. Bob Ney (Ohio), Don Sherwood (Pa.) and Curt Weldon (Pa.) — have put otherwise safe seats into play.
The greatly expanded playing field makes it quite obvious that these midterm elections are a Republican nightmare. Few Democratic seats are at any risk, while normally safe Republican districts are endangered.

At least a couple of dozen Republican incumbents trail in polling or hold narrow leads and are well under 50 percent of the vote — a dangerous position this late in an election cycle. In many ways, this situation mirrors 1994, the most recent major partisan wave in a midterm election. A dozen years ago, Democratic incumbents were well under 50 percent of the vote in trial heats against their GOP opponents. Most of them lost.

In district after district, undecided voters disapprove of the president’s performance, think the country is on the wrong track and generally fit a demographic profile that suggests they are more likely to vote for Democratic challengers than for GOP incumbents, if they vote at all.

Quality Republican incumbents who began the cycle well-liked and viewed as thoughtful and effective, as well as strong campaigners — including three relatively moderate House Republicans in Connecticut, plus Reps. Anne Northup (Ky.), Clay Shaw (Fla.), Jim Walsh (N.Y.) and Heather Wilson (N.M.) — could find themselves drowning in a Democratic wave.

But I remain skeptical that large numbers of GOP candidates in solidly Republican districts are likely to lose. In 2004, Nebraska’s 3rd district gave Bush 75 percent of the vote, while Indiana’s 3rd went 68 percent for Bush. The president won Idaho’s 1st with 69 percent, Wyoming with 69 percent and Colorado’s 5th with 66 percent. Democratic Congressional candidates will come close in some of those districts, but any Democratic victories still would constitute major upsets.

Few Republican voters will vote for Democratic candidates, and the GOP’s “micro-targeting” get-out-the-vote operation could well result in an electorate that is more Republican than some GOP strategists fear.

Luckily for Democrats, their nominees don’t have to knock off Republicans in such solidly Republican districts to net 25 or even 30 seats.

Over in the Senate, recent polling in the Virginia Senate race has brought more bad news to Republicans. New public and private polling suggests that Democrat Jim Webb has pulled ahead of Allen. Again, given Allen’s incumbency and his inability to find wedge issues to portray his Democratic challenger as an unapologetic liberal, the Republican Senator will have real problems making Webb unacceptable to undecided voters.

The outlook for Republicans is a little brighter in Missouri, where some private poll numbers last week had showed state Auditor Claire McCaskill (D) opening up a significant lead over Sen. Jim Talent. Newer numbers suggest that the race remains competitive. But even so, Talent continues to face a very difficult bid for re-election.